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Using Erasmus+ for continuous professional development in Community Education
Jim Sheehan is Director of The Social and Health Education Project (SHEP). SHEP is a community education and development project founded in 1974 that is active in Cork, Kerry and Limerick. SHEP have used Erasmus+ Adult Education funding to support staff training and professional development since 2014. Jim shares SHEP’s experience of using Erasmus+, and his advice for organisations considering getting involved.
How we got involved in Erasmus+
Our focus in SHEP is on promoting individual and community well-being. Our particular approach is to use experiential training methods, especially facilitated group-work. Our work is mostly with adults and is almost entirely non-formal. We work from community development principles of empowerment, inclusion, and social justice. We have a relatively small staff team, but are supported in our work by a large body of tutors, trainers and group facilitators.
Before Erasmus+ our only involvement with European funding was through a modest, two-year Grundtvig exchange of good practice project which focussed on working with older adults in empowering ways. When Erasmus+ began we attended a Léargas information session about the new programme strands for Adult Education organisations like SHEP: Key Action 1 for Mobility of Adult Education Staff, and Key Action 2 for Strategic Partnerships between organisations. It seemed a tremendous opportunity and we decided to apply - although we appreciated that Erasmus+ is a competitive programme, and that an application requires robust planning. We were delighted to be successful on our first attempt, and the success really boosted our confidence. We have now successfully completed two Erasmus+ KA1 mobility projects.
What Erasmus+ did for us
First of all, we have been able to send a significant number of our adult education staff team to high-quality, relevant training in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain. These are exciting continuing professional development opportunities that would not otherwise have been possible. We identified training that was relevant to our education and training programme, which in our case was quite broad because we work in such diverse areas - personal development, health and well-being, community development, facilitating groups, human rights and advocacy, and environmental awareness. As a result we have been able to link in with contemporary, progressive and sometimes cutting edge training available in Europe.
A second, but very important, benefit of taking part in Erasmus+ was increased staff motivation and morale. Our experience is that everyone who has participated has been very appreciative of the opportunity. They have found the experience of training abroad in a culturally diverse environment, in a topic relevant to their professional work, personally enriching, exciting and stimulating. From SHEP’s perspective, Erasmus+ has been an opportunity to support the continuing professional development of our staff. It has also given us an important opportunity to show our appreciation for the contribution of our adult education practitioners who work diligently, often with vulnerable groups, often in remote areas. Coming towards the end of a difficult period of austerity in Ireland, with cut-backs and increased work pressures, the opportunities presented by Erasmus+ have been particularly timely.
The third and perhaps most significant benefit is that our organisation has become more connected to European thinking and to other training projects or organisations. We feel less isolated and more part of a European-wide adult education movement. The links created through our Staff Mobility project have helped us to think more broadly about our own programme development. They have also helped us consider getting involved in KA2 Strategic Partnerships, and in one case (our connection with Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’ training) has enabled an expansion in our organisational thinking and practice.
Our experience of how Erasmus+ works
In our experience the most challenging part of Erasmus+ is planning the project and preparing the application. Good help is available from Léargas, and we have found it is essential to attend an information session or application workshop. Planning the project requires the applying organisation to think strategically: the programme is not about funding ad-hoc training. Undoubtedly, the process is easier the second time round, particularly as the practical experience of carrying out a project makes it much easier to plan and describe future projects.
A key aspect of the application is that you don’t have to have all the courses or training programmes for your staff identified in advance. This gives great flexibility. The courses our personnel attended were usually between three and five days long, though a few were longer. Most of our ‘mobilities’ (the Erasmus+ term for a person travelling to another country for work, training or volunteering) have involved staff participating in training courses – but ‘job-shadowing’ is also an option. We had our first experience of job-shadowing in our second project, when we sent two of our advocacy trainers to learn about the work of a progressive Advocacy Organisation in Scotland.
It is important to note that conferences are also eligible, as long as they are relevant and last two full days at a minimum. We have benefited enormously from being able to send staff to some key European conferences in areas relevant to our training programme. Again, none of this training would have happened without Erasmus+ support.
When it comes to choosing staff to take part, SHEP have used a combination of methods. Sometimes there are particular people who are best placed to benefit from a particular type of training and bring back the learning to the whole organisation. At other times, we have offered staff the opportunity to take part in particular training we have identified and asked them to apply. We have been fortunate to be able to include almost everyone who expressed their interest. The grant funding available is generally enough to cover the full financial cost of participating (course fees, travel and subsistence), so there is no requirement for the organisation or participant to contribute costs or match funding. All we ask of participants, besides committing to participating as fully as possible, is to bring the learning back to the organisation.
Learn from our experience!
We have learned a great deal from designing and carrying out our two KA1 mobility projects.
It is essential to source and select the right training for your staff, and this can take time and research. In the beginning we had only limited knowledge of training available in Ireland and the UK. We asked our staff and adult education personnel to help find training relevant to our needs, and in fact some of the best courses were identified this way. Over the last few years we have discovered important training institutes in UK and Europe that we did not know about, many of which offered highly experiential training (like ourselves) and operated from a similar holistic and person-centred value base. Learning about training options made our second project easier, not least because we had already identified and engaged with a number of training providers that we wanted to include.
We’ve also learnt that it is essential to have the support of a good administrator within the organisation. Each individual mobility is managed as a grant to the participant and this involves work before and after the training event. We had not previously managed grants as part of our work, so this was new to us. We had to design our own internal grant-making process which has required careful oversight and checking. The paperwork needs to be completed to a high standard and it is essential to have all the right supporting documentation to meet the standards required in an audit.
Erasmus+ projects can be from twelve months to two years, and our first project was for twelve months. However our experience now tells us that planning for a two-year project can be helpful. The pace is more relaxed and you have more time to find appropriate training, for participants to prepare, and especially to put in place a process for participants to share and embed the learning among the team.
Most of our mobilities have involved a single person participating in a training programme. However, we have discovered that sometimes it is very helpful to send two participants together because there is a stronger opportunity to embed the learning into the organisation. We have also sent a second person to the same training though at a later stage.
In general, the cost of training is similar to the Erasmus+ funding available, which is €70 per day up to a maximum of ten days. However, in cases where the training has been more expensive we have provided additional funding from the ‘organisational support’ part of the budget – which is available to the organisation to cover the cost of administering each mobility.
Finally, we’ve found that it can be quite challenging to ensure good dissemination of the learning. To ‘embed’ the learning can be even more of a challenge. This requires good support from the staff team, planning and commitment from the participants. Our experience has been that participants need to think about this as part of their application and planning prior to attending. The organisation also needs to have a project coordinator who has the time and energy to support this important phase of the work to happen.
Our advice for similar organisations
Based on our experience we have the following advice for any adult education group thinking of applying for a KA1 mobility project:
- Start small: taking a modest first step will give you experience you can draw on for further applications. Subsequent applications can grow as you gain experience and increase in confidence.
- Léargas is a very supportive, helpful and professional organisation. The staff are excellent and very approachable. It is important to avail of their support and it is essential to attend the information and application sessions to prepare an application.
- Start work on the application in good time, ideally several months in advance. The application deadline is usually in the Spring, which is a busy time for most community education groups.
- Write out the application in MS Word and then transfer it to the online application form. Remember there are word limits in some sections!
- Finally, Léargas provide great feedback on both successful and unsuccessful applications. If you are not successful the first time, use the feedback to improve your application.
The Verdict: 'Valuable, Enriching and Transformative'
Erasmus+ KA1 mobility is undoubtedly a very worthwhile programme. Though it is competitive, and requires significant commitment of time and effort, in our experience it has proven highly valuable, enriching, and transformative. It has surpassed our expectations, though we probably under-appreciated the work involved organisationally to execute the project to a high standard. We in SHEP feel genuinely privileged to be part of this European programme which has helped us, both as individuals and as an organisation, to learn and to grow and which has deepened our connections with like-minded European people and organisations committed to adult education.
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Images courtesy of Jim Sheehan. We welcome contributions to 'Insights' at email@example.com.